Hawking Up Hairballs

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Showing My Age

The other day, I was thinking about the German punk rocker Nina Hagen. I can't recall what brought her to mind, but her 1982 album NunSexMonkRock is probably my all-time favorite rock album. In it, she covers almost all of the hot-button topics, sex, religion, aliens, and her newly-born daughter, Cosima Shiva. In one song, she claims that her daughter was fathered by an alien. I loved it! It wasn't just the songs though, it was her voice. Nina was an opera prodigy, and she was trained for Wagnerian opera before throwing it over to become a punk rocker. In her songs, she uses the full-range of her voice, jumping around from one octave to another like a jazz saxophonist.

Unfortunately, Nina's work started going downhill after that album. Fearless was pretty good and she did a few interesting songs after that but she never made another really outstanding album. Now she's 52, and though she tries to maintain her outrageous persona, it's just for show. She's found religion and she's been reduced to doing voiceovers on animated features for kids in Germany. Yuck!

I don't really recall where I first learned about Nina Hagen, but I can remember the moment I first heard two of my other favorite artists. I was a reluctantly conventional student at the University of Florida on the verge of making the plunge into bohemianism when this guy down the hall in my dorm asked me into his room to hear this album. It was Highway 69 Revisited by Bob Dylan. I was blown away by the experience. It was like someone had shown me a world that I didn't even know existed. And speaking of that "blown" turn of phrase, that was the first time I heard the phrase, "Blew my mind."

I couldn't pick out one Dylan album that's my favorite. So much of his work is wonderful, and he still hits the marks sometimes. The last song on his CD from a few years ago, Time Out of Mind, is the best song I've ever heard about getting old. I'd mention the song's damned title, but I can't recall it.

With Dylan, it isn't so much the music as it is the lyrics. As far as I'm concerned, he's the best lyricist ever. No one has matched him, especially in his earlier work. Laurie Anderson comes close. Sometime back in the 1980's, I was driving in my car and my radio was tuned in to the Georgia Tech student station. That's when I heard Anderson's song "Big Science". I ran right out and got the CD. Though her lyrics aren't as lush and surrealistic as Dylan's, they're almost as good, but I first heard her in middle age, so she didn't have quite the same impact on me as Dylan.

I guess all of this shows my age. The hip-hop era has left me behind. It's not that I'm the typical old curmudgeon who rails about how the kids don't know what good music is or anything like that. It's just that, though I'm always looking for interesting new writers, I've pretty much lost interest in new music. I've listened to a few hip-hop artists and found them interesting. For instance, I like Eminem, but I've never bought any of his CD's and don't think that I ever will. Perhaps it's the decline of my sex drive with age. So much of pop music, even in its more sophisticated manifestations, is about getting laid, but what the hell. So goes the world. Maybe I'll just go listen to Nina again but, at this hour, she would just keep me awake.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Link

I've added a new web site to my links. Pierre Tristam is a Lebanese American who is an editorial writer for the Daytona Beach newspaper. Yes, Daytona Beach. Tristam is very liberal and it's odd to find someone like that writing for a Florida paper, but this one is apparently one of the few remaining dailies that is individually owned. I don't agree with Tristam on everything, but he says a lot that's interesting, and I really like the following quotation, which he posted on his site. It's from biologist Edward O. Wilson's book, Consilience. He's addressing creationists' claims about evolution.

"Anything is possible, it can be said, if you believe in miracles. Perhaps God did create all organisms, including human beings, in finished form, in one stroke, and maybe it all happened several thousand years ago. But if that is true, he also salted the earth with false evidence in such endless and exquisite detail, and so thoroughly from pole to pole, as to make us conclude first that life evolved, and second that the process took billions of years. Surely Scripture tells us He would not do that. The Prime Mover of the Old and New Testaments is variously loving, magesterial, denying, thunderously angry, and mysterious, but never tricky."

More From Fisk

"Iraqis might take satisfaction at the overthrow of their dictator. But punished by twelve years of brutal sanctions, bombed repeatedly by allied aircraft over the same period under the spurious notion that enforcement of the 'no-fly' zones would protect them, dusted over by the poison of our depleted-uranium munitions, twice in just over a decade, would they really come to greet and love us -- the new occupiers who had so punished them, who had humiliated them over so many years?"

The above quotation is from Robert Fisk's book, The Great War For Civilisation. It comes from a chapter entitled "The Plague". The plague to which he is referring is the plague of cancers that had been visited upon the Iraqis in the south of the country as a result of the US and British use of depleted-uranium ammunition during the first Gulf war. This ammunition is intended for use against armored vehicles and heavily fortified positions. The so-called depleted uranium is used because of its great mass, which gives it more punch. When a depleted uranium round hits an armored vehicle it punches a hole right through the armor. In the process, some of the metal is vaporized. When it cools, it creates a dust that is spread by the wind. It settles into the the soil, streams, and lakes. In addition, pieces of the uranium from the exploded shells are apparently bright and shiny, so they appeal to kids, who pick them up and play with them. This might not be such a big deal, except for the fact that, though the uranium is depleted in the sense of no longer suitable for use in reactors, it is still radioactive, and it is dangerous. As Fisk points out, the epidemiology of childhood cancers in the Basra area in southern Iraq verifies that fact. The number of cases of cancers has multiplied significantly in the area around where these weapons were used.

Not only that, but the UN sanctions meant that people didn't have enough to eat, and that medicine was hard to come by. A lot of these sanctions weren't just ludicrous, but cruel. The Iraqis couldn't import a number of vaccines. like that for diptheria. The agents against which these vaccines acted were said to be potential biological warfare agents, so the vaccines were declared to have military value. Likewise, pencils couldn't be imported, because the graphite of which their lead is made was deemed to have potential military uses. There were also continued punitive air strikes. Some of the targets of these strikes had military value, but not others. For example, how did hitting a water purification plant punish Saddam? It was the people who suffered as a result of actions like that. When questioned about all this, US military and government officials customarily said that it was all Saddam's fault. If he complied with the UN sanctions, they wouldn't have to do these things. What twisted logic. Say a small boy is beaten up because he refused to give a larger bully his lunch money. By the same reasoning, you could say that the beating was the smaller boys fault because he failed to hand over his money. And besides, the Iraqi people didn't have the means to depose Saddam. His control was just plain too effective. As a matter of fact, the Shia in the south of Iraq did rise up against him after the first Gulf war, and the US stepped aside to let Saddam crush them.

After all this, it seems utterly ludicrous that Bush and his neocon enablers actually thought that the Iraqi people would welcome the US as liberators. It just goes to show you how obtuse the people in the Bush administrations really are. We Americans are not a people with an appreciation of history, but Bush and his coterie have taken it to new levels. But then, they're about creating a new reality. Too bad it has to be a Disneyland reality. Say hi to Goofy for me, George.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Robert Fisk

I've been reading Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. Fisk has been a Middle East correspondent for thirty years, and this book details the history of the region during the period, from Algeria all the way over to Afghanistan. However, it's a long book, over a thousand pages. I'm finding it to be a bit of a slog, but it's worth it.

The Great War that Fisk refers to in his title is World War One. Fisk's contention is that all of the difficulties that have occurred in the Middle East flow from the political decisions made by the victorious Western powers at the end of that war. The Ottoman Empire had collapsed but, rather than allowing the people of that region to decide their own futures, the British and French forced a political solution upon them that suited their own interests. At the time, the influence of the United States was benign, and Wilson actually favored allowing those in the Middle East to determine their own fates through a truly democratic process. Unfortunately, he didn't prevail and, after World War Two, when it became clear just how key the Middle East was in terms of oil, the US got its hands dirty too.

Until I started reading this book, I hadn't realized how much of recent history I've forgotten. For example, I had forgotten just how horrific the Iran-Iraq War was. Nobody knows for sure just how many soldiers from the two countries died in the war, but the best estimate is that it was a million. It was fought much like World War One in Europe, with elaborate trench systems and mass attacks. And gas. I knew that Sadaam Hussein had used nerve gas on those Kurdish villages, but I hadn't realized just how extensive the Iraqi use of chemical warfare was. Fisk describes touring a battlefield a few days after one of these attacks. Hundreds of dead Iranian soldiers were lying there, all of them with dark stains in the crotches of their pants. That was from the urine. Nerve gas makes you pee yourself. There isn't anything truly sane about war, but some of the scenes described by Fisk go beyond what one could even imagine. There are trainloads of boys and old men, Iranians who have volunteered to walk the battlefield, thus giving their lives to explode Iraqi mines prior to Iranian attacks. Fisk describes them as clutching their Korans on their way to the front, most of them happy and smiling. They're convinced that they will soon be in paradise.

In Europe after World War One, there was the sense that they'd seen enough of war, that it was all just mad butchery. In fact, it is generally agreed that the French didn't put up more resistance to Hitler's invasion of their country because they thought it was going to be like the previous war and they just couldn't face the prospect of that kind of slaughter again. Fisk traveled extensively in Iran after their war with Iraq, and he reports that, contrary to what he expected, there was little of this kind of war weariness. With few exceptions, the Iranians that he talked to were proud of their country's repulse of Iraq, and they considered those who had died as true heroes. That should give pause to those who favor an American attack on Iran. After reading Fisk's book, I think such an attack would have grave consequences, in Iraq and around the world, and for a long time too. Those who favor it seem to think that, if the US military can bomb Iran back into the Stone Age, the influence of the ayatollahs would wane, and a Western-style democracy would emerge. As Fisk points out, the Iran-Iraq war forged the new Islamic nation in Iran, and it now has deep roots, especially in the countryside and in the impoverished ghettoes of the cities.

Reading Fisk, one despairs of any solution in the Middle East and, by solution, I mean a change where everyone can live in peace, according to their own lights. In so many instances, the most extreme elements have prevailed. Take the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As Fisk makes abundantly clear, it is the Israelis who are responsible for the violence. They are basically doing what the United States government did to the native Americans, stealing their land and forcing them onto reservations. Given that they have no other viable alternatives, it is not surprising that the Palestinians have resorted to suicide bombings. At first these were directed at military targets, barracks and such. Fisk has no problem with that, and neither do I, but what is the point in setting off bombs that mainly kill civilians? Fisk put the question to a couple of Palestinian guerilla leaders and the answer he got was always the same. They would point out that the Israelis indiscrimate use of missiles, bombs and artillery also killed innocent civilians. That was true enough, but it doesn't justify replying in kind. I came away from that chapter wishing a plague upon both their houses, though I shouldn't have. The initiative is with the Israelis and the violence would likely end if they would comply with UN Resolution 242, which calls for them to withdraw from the Palestinian lands seized in the 1967 War.

This book has caused me to again ponder a question that I have asked myself before. What is a people supposed to do when another power seeks to impose its will on them, especially when it is a case like the Palestinians against the Israelis, or the Iraqis who are determined to expel the US? Traditional warfare is not possible and, in the case of guerilla warfare, it seems that the most extreme elements come to the fore. They are most often just as bad as those they oppose. Some people would suggest the sort of collective non-violence favored by Gandhi, but that only works in certain historical circumstances. When the oppressing power is determined and willing to use whatever violence is necessary, such techniques won't work. If the British had seized Gandhi and his top aides and "disappeared" them, what would have happened to his mass movement? Most likely, it would have dissolved, but the British were of two minds about staying in India, and Gandhi's movement served to strength the hand of those in British ruling circles who favored withdrawal.

So, in the end, though I recommend Fisk's book, it's not likely to leave you feeling upbeat about the future of the region. Of course, there's no reason to, at least for the short and medium terms. So much the worse for the poor bastards who live over there, but it is us and our children who are likely to reap the whirlwind.

Monday, September 10, 2007


The computer revolution of the last several decades has had its effect on the language. Chief among them is the introduction of new words into the everyday language. The oddest of such examples that I know of is "pwn" and its past tense "pwned". I had seen these words several places online, but it is only recently that I learned what they meant. "Pwn" is a misspelling of the word "own". It is used in a slang sense for "own" insofar as this verb is used to indicate that one person has bested another in a competitive endeavor, as in "I owned you." Then, where in the hell did "pwn" come from? It isn't even pronounceable. Well, as it turns out, in a very popular computer game, which one I don't know, it turns out that "own" was misspelled as "pwn". Aficionados of the game started writing "pwn" and "pwned" when they meant "own" and "owned." It was a short jump from there into the world of common cyber slang. I find that kind of neat, but I still wish I knew how the damned wprd is pronounced.

The Pesthouse

I like dystopian novels, the kind set in the not too distant future where everything has gone to hell. Jim Crace's The Pesthouse falls into that genre. It is set in the United States, presumably a few hundred years in the future. All technology and such has been lost, and the people are living much as they did in the medieval Europe. As in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, no reason is given for this state of affairs. McCarthy's world is a post-apocalyptic hell, and it seems from hints in the book that it was a result of a nuclear holocaust. In Crace's book, there has been no apparent apocalypse. It just seems that there has been this catastrophic decline, leaving a bleak world behind.

In The Pesthouse, people are migrating en masse toward the East Coast, where they believe that they can find passage across the ocean to a better life. Two of these emigrants are Jackson and Franklin Lopez. They arrive at Ferrytown, which is on a river near its source in a large lake. Franklin is having trouble with a balky knee, so he remains in the hills for the night, while his brother goes down to the town to check things out. Though Franklin doesn't know it, he's bedding down not far from the pesthouse. This is a shack to which the sick are banished until they are well. They are shaved from head to toe so that folks will know to avoid them, and condemned to life in this pesthouse until they die or their hair grows out. At the beginning of the novel, Margaret is the sole occupant of the shack as a result of the fever from which she is suffering. During the night in which they are up there in the hills, an eruption of toxic gas kills everyone in the town. This impels the two of them to join up and follow the migration. The Pesthouse is the story of their journey.

Franklin and Margaret make their way eastward, suffering a number of misadventures on the way. They are separated for a time when Franklin is captured by slavers, who do not want Margaret because they fear that she has a plague, though her fever has passed. She makes her way to a town on the coast where she is finally reunited with Franklin, who manages to escape his captors. They are, of course, disappointed by the prospects there, and decide to head back west, mainly to escape the slavers, who will be seeking out Franklin, who stole a couple of their horses in his escape attempt. When the novel ends, they are back at the pesthouse, where they are staying for a while, with every intention of proceeding even further westward to the homestead of Franklin's mother.

It sounds like a grim story in summary, but they are full of hope at the end and the reader gets the sense that they will be able to make a life for themselves in the end. Not so fast, kemosabe. I'm not buying it. Throughout the novel, they are constantly worried about thieves and outlaws. Whenever they camp at night, they are loathe to make a fire because they fear they will attract the wrong kind of attention. Their fear is justified, given that Franklin spent several months in the hands of slavers. So, how are they going to settle down anywhere and build a life for themselves? Sooner or later, a band of unsavory characters will show up and destroy what they have built. The only way that people can defend themselves from such depradations is by building a community. There's safety in numbers, folks. However, Crace's characters are pretty much loners. Franklin and Margaret want no one but each other. As such they are inevitably doomed, and in not suggesting this, I think Crace is failing the reader. If he wanted to give his characters a reason to be hopeful about their prospects, he should have put them in circumstances where such hope is possible.

One thing I would like to make clear. This sounds like some piece of sci-fi, but it's not. It's literature and Crace writes unusually well, so I would not want to scare anyone off from this book. In spite of my misgivings, I think that it is well worth reading.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sheep Dogs, My Ass

There is a cable channel called The Military Channel. Sometimes late at night, they will show archival combat footage from World War Two. When I can't sleep, I'll sometimes turn this on. Don't ask me why. Perhaps it was my upbringing. My father was a career Air Force officer. The only movies I ever saw in the theater until I was old enough to go on my own were war movies. That's because those were the only movies that my father would take us boys to see. I remember one in particular because it traumatized me. I don't recall the title, but it was set in the Korean War, and it starred Ronald Reagan. The gist of it was that too many American prisoners of war were cracking and collaborating with the North Koreans. Reagan was an intelligence officer who was assigned to find out why. He was to let himself be captured, determine what was going on, and escape so he could report to his superiors. True-blue Ronnie did as ordered, and reported that the prisoners of war were holding up remarkably well given the tortures they were suffering. As I recall, there were lots of scenes of those tortures, like crucifying prisoners for being Christians. I was seven or eight years old when I saw the film and it gave me nightmares. Of course, I was an overly sensitive soul as a child. When I was ten years old, I snuck out to see the science fiction movie This Island Earth with my cousin. I had really terrifying nightmares about the monster in the movie for two weeks. I've since seen it on TV, and I've had to laugh at the fact that it scared me so.

Anyway, I have digressed. Let's get back to the Military Channel. I was going to watch this show about the air war against Japan in the Bismarck Sea in World War Two. I tuned in about five minutes early, and they were wrapping up an hour-long show on a Marine company in Iraq. It showed them kicking in doors and leading off captives. The Marines were comparing themselves to their enemies. The way they explained it, they were like sheep dogs, and the insurgents were like wolves. Both were from the dog family and capable of violence, but the difference was that the wolf preyed upon the flock while the sheep dog watched over it. If I could have reached into the screen and grabbed the Marine who was saying this by the collar, I would have shaken him and screamed, "Could you be anymore of an idiot?" Of course, I guess I shouldn't expect much in the way of analytical abilities from these thugs. First of all, they fail to see the utter arrogance of this characterization. Like these people need the U.S. military to come over there and watch over them as though they were a bunch of sheep. They're quite capable of governing themselves, if only we would let them. Of course, that's the point, isn't it? They aren't supposed to govern themselves. They're supposed to submit to the American government and its interests.

I find it intriguing that it was former Marine Major General Smedley Butler who said the following in a 1933 speech. It is as true now as it was then.

War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.

I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we'll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.

I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its "finger men" to point out enemies, its "muscle men" to destroy enemies, its "brain men" to plan war preparations, and a "Big Boss" Super-Nationalistic Capitalism.

It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


The other day, I watched a BBC documentary entitled We Have Ways To Make You Talk on LinkTV. It was a history of the recent use of torture as a technique of interrogation. It began with the French practices in Algiers in the 1950's on up to the present time. Torturers and their victims were interviewed. It got me to thinking. Those of liberal opinion commonly hold that, not only is torture unethical and immoral, but it doesn't work. I agree with the the first part of that statement. To my mind, there is no ethical or moral justification for torture. However, I am not so sure about the second part.

If someone has a piece of information that you want, they will give it up under torture. All of the torturers who were interviewed for the documentary agreed on that, and I see no reason to dispute it. These practices wouldn't persist unless there were instances in which they were effective. On the other hand, if a detainee does not have he desired information, he's likely to tell the interrogator what he wants to hear in order to stop the torture. Sometimes that involves giving up people who are, in fact, innocent. For example, one of the victims of torture was a man who was picked up by the British during the troubles in Northern Ireland. The British tortured him in order to make him give up the names of IRA members. He said that he didn't know any IRA members, so he gave them the names of his neighbors just so the pain would stop. Were these people brought in and tortured as well? The documentary didn't say, but it wouldn't have been surprising. There wasn't any comment from the British authorities, but I suspect that they didn't much care whether or not innocent people were arrested and perhaps tortured. They were probably seen as collateral damage. As a former member of the British army who had been in Northern Ireland at the time stated, they stopped the IRA terrorism, so it was worth it.

A couple of members of the South African police who had participated in torture during the apartheid era were also interviewed. One of them talked about his favorite form of torture. It involved a gas mask. There is a stopper or something of the sort on these masks that is removed before use. If it isn't removed, the person wearing the mask can't breathe. This cop would tie his victim to a chair and put a stoppered gas mask on him. Just as he was about to pass out, he would take off the mask. He would tell the victim that unless he gave up the requested information, he'd put the mask back on. After going through this twice, the victim would be informed that he'd had his last chance and that the mask would remain on until he suffocated and died. The former cop said that this method never failed to get the information that he wanted, not even once. He never had to put the mask on a third time. Given the racial nature of the white South African regime, I doubt that they much cared much whether or not the information was accurate. So some innocent people were locked away or killed. They were undoubtedly seen as nothing more than "kaffirs" in the eyes of these fascists.

Now, there are those who would defend the use of torture in extraordinary circumstances. They invariably come up with some hypothetical scenario like, suppose a terrorist group is going to plant a nuclear bomb somewhere in New York City and we need to stop them before they can do it. That sort of example is bogus, and I defy them to come up with a single such situation from real life. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to incidents like 9/11, the information is usually there for the intelligence agencies but is either discounted or isn't acted upon. When it comes to torture, no government or regime that employs it uses it just as a measure of last resort in such circumstances, even if they were to arise. It is invariably part of a larger social and political process, namely, the violent suppression of opposition populations or movements. That was the case with the French in Algiers, the right-wing governments in Uruguay and Chile, the white regime in South Africa, and the British in Northern Ireland. It is also the case with the U.S. in Iraq. In that sense, torture is itself a form of terrorism, and it should be condemned for the unethical and immoral practice that it is.